Native Son Lesson Plans
by Richard Wright

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Native Son Essay Questions

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American Literature

Native Son: Open book essay test

I. Passage Identifications: Choose two of the following passages. (They are not included in order from the novel.) First, locate the passage within the text. (State book—Fear, Flight or Fate—and briefly explain the context. You may include the exact page, but this is not required for a good answer.) Next, explain why the passage is important to the novel as a whole; that is, why it is an important means of showing Bigger’s characterization or the themes and social issues of the novel. You may examine one, two or three additional passages for extra credit. Please label your extra credit.

  • “What this boy has done will not influence my relations with the Negro people. Why, only today I sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club . . .”
  • She was resting on the small of her back and her dress was pulled up so far that he could see where her stockings ended on her thighs. He stood looking at her for a moment; she raised her eyes and looked at him. She laughed.
  • He felt two soft palms holding his face tenderly and the thought and image of the whole blind world which had made him ashamed and afraid fell away as he felt her as a fallow field beneath him stretching out under a cloudy sky waiting for rain . . .
  • A noise made him whirl; two green burning pools --pools of accusation and guilt --stared at him from a white blur that sat perched upon the edge of the trunk. His mouth opened in a silent scream and his body became hotly paralyzed.
  • He was not planning to use it and there was nothing in particular that he was afraid of, but there was in him an uneasiness and distrust that made him feel that he ought to have it along. He was going among white people so he would take [it] . . . .It would make him feel that he was the equal of them, give him a sense of completeness.
  • “When Negroes become resentful over imagined wrongs, nothing brings them to their senses so quickly as when citizens take the law into their hands and make an example out of a troublemaking nigger.”
  • He knew the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain.
  • [It was] one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it it kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout. Above the top of the poster were tall red letters: YOU CAN’T WIN!

II. Short Answer and Personal Response. Answer three questions in this section. You may answer any or all of the remaining questions for extra credit.

  • How is the concept of whiteness used symbolically in the novel? Give at least one example.
  • How does Bigger’s pride become a destructive force in the novel? How could that pride have been a potentially positive force had circumstances and Bigger’s choices been different?
  • Why does Bigger find no comfort in his mother’s religious beliefs? Considering the submissive attitude of Bigger’s mother as well as the minister, is it understandable that Bigger would react as he does? Explain and comment.
  • Why is the historical context of the novel particularly significant in understanding the theme and characterization? Consider especially Bigger’s feelings about his choices and limitations.
  • Examine the stereotypical development of the female characters in the novel. Why do you think Wright chose not to develop the females any differently? What purpose could be served by their one-dimensional development?
  • What is Wright’s social message in this novel? Why is this social message delivered effectively through the choice of a major character who is clearly guilty of horrendous criminal acts?
  • We live in a much different world today—more than sixty years after Native Son was published. Why and how is this novel still relevant to our society today? What can we learn and realize from this novel?
  • Briefly describe the racial prejudice evident in the court system as presented in the novel, giving at least two specific examples.

III. Write one full-length essay of four to six paragraphs. You must use at least two quotes from the novel to support your ideas; these quotes may be taken from your quote journal or from Part I of this test (but they need not be from those sources). Choose from the following topics.

  • Examine the blindness motif in the novel, and explain how blindness works thematically to convey Richard Wright’s social themes.
  • In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening scene of Native Son in which you explain how it functions in this way.
  • In quality literature, no scene of violence exists for its own sake. In a well-organized essay explain how the scenes of violence in Native Son are not merely sensational but are used to develop Richard Wright’s characterization of Bigger Thomas and his theme of social inequity and injustice.
  • Write an essay in which you examine the effect of point of view in Native Son. How does Wright give us a view of Bigger’s distorted thought processes? How are these thoughts “logical” to Bigger considering the way he has learned to view and think about the world? Consider Bigger’s distorted thoughts as a reflection of the distorted justice in the world as he experiences it.

About this Document

This is an open book essay test on Native Son that offers many options for students to demonstrate their understanding of the novel.